We all have roles to play in life. You know what I mean: daughter, sister, mother, housewife, doctor, lawyer, Indian chief ~ did I say housewife? That certainly puts me in my place in the past three quarters of a century.
I’ve lived several roles over the years… daughter, sister, student, friend, air force officer, student, student (yes, ten years, two degrees), veterinarian ~ and throughout all those stages of life ~ writer.
I started writing at 12. I saw a movie, was entranced, and ran home to write it down so that I should never forget it. The movie was a pot-boiler romance starring Tyrone Power and Sonia Henie. Today I would switch channels. But, because I wrote it down in the form of a “novel”, I remember that movie to this day.
For some years I wrote for amusement. Always fiction. I got great marks in high school English Composition, “My Summer Adventure” sort of thing, always fiction. Real life was not good enough. Little bits of fiction, usually about some animal, never with purpose, never plotted, never finished.
One day I had a good look at myself and I said to myself, said I, “You’ve never really finished anything in your life, have you?” I was probably 25 at the time, a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force at the height of the Cold War, watching Canadian skies by Radar. We fully expected that one day or night we would intercept a blip on the screen that would be the first ICBM ~ InterContinental Ballistic Missile ~ coming at us courtesy of Moscow, and humankind would be on the way out. Understand, now. We believed that we were the front line rampart against a communist nuclear holocaust. Heavy stuff.
That was the day I started to write a story, resolved to finish what I started. A few weeks later I ended up with my first novel. Finished it. Today I have no idea what it was about. I tossed it. But the experience of writing, and of finishing, so mesmerized me that I started another. And another. Since then my spare time has been ~ with a noteworthy ten-year interval ~ devoted to writing novels. In 1963 I wrote a wonderful story about a half-breed Indian named Lee Santos who rode bulls and broncs in the rodeos while trying to find his place in a world that rejected half-breed Indians. Doubleday, New York liked it and bought it. Wow, I thought. That was easy! What did I know about bulls, broncs, and half-breed Indians? Nothing. But that’s the secret, you see. You write about what you don’t know. You find out. You do the research and fill in the blanks with imagination based on what you do know, and you make the language flow in a style that suits the subject. That has become my modus operandi.
But then I had another lightbulb moment. I was by this time a junior officer “flying a desk” from Monday to Friday, shuffling papers, inspecting things and people, filling in as Library Officer and Housing Officer and Benevolent Fund Officer, and generally watching the clock and looking forward to my next leave. Too small a cog on the giant wheel. When I looked at the reality of women in the service, at that time the most senior woman in the RCAF was a major, one rank above me. Her job was as commander of all women personnel. Talk about going in circles. It just didn’t seem a good enough target. I took a more critical look at it. Women weren’t allowed to fly except as flight attendants. We weren’t allowed to bear arms or command men or go into a battle zone, we weren’t allowed to marry without taking honourable release from the service, and if we happened to get pregnant out-of-wedlock, God forbid! we were out on our proverbial ass. Talk about equality! Further ~ get this ~ we were paid 70% of the salary of a male officer of the same rank and seniority.
Now, I’d signed on for this, so there was no point in crying about it. But I’d gained something by finishing all those little novels, and I told myself without equivocation that I could finish this next project too. I resigned my commission just two months shy of a 15-year retirement pension (was this good planning, or what?), and took my benefits in a lump sum to university. My aim? To become a veterinarian. Remember all those animals I often wrote about? Fiction now pointed the way ahead. Was university to become my next fiction?
Ten tortured years later…
I’ve practised veterinary medicine and surgery since graduating in 1977. Dogs, cats, pocket pets, exotics ~ including reptiles, sugar gliders, pet monkeys, tarantula spiders. In my day I’ve trimmed the toenails of a circus elephant and taken the temperature of a dolphin! Everything except birds. I tried birds for a short period, but when a budgie died right in my hand from the shock of being handled, that was enough of birds. I’ve bred German Shepherds, raised puppies, have shown them to their championships, trained them to their degrees, and trained trainers to train dogs. One might ask, what had all of that to do with my years in the military? Nothing at all. It was a volcanic breakout from the military. It became my chequered life, a satisfying life, not always easy, and never dull.
And always, at the end of a busy day, I found the time to write. Fiction, of course.